He says, “Your parents aren’t the priority right now, Celeste. I’m your fiancé. We were supposed to get married today.”
She walks right past him and into the house, and it’s all Benji can do not to follow behind her like a puppy dog.
Instead, he heads to the kitchen and watches Thomas pile a plate high with sandwiches and potato salad and summer fruit that the caterer had dropped off earlier that afternoon as scheduled—it was supposed to be the pre-wedding lunch—and when Thomas notices Benji staring at him, he says, “What? I’m hungry, and my wife is pregnant and needs food.”
Benji says in the calmest voice he can manage, “Is this Dad’s fault? Was he screwing her?”
“Sounds like it,” Thomas says matter-of-factly. He notices the look of disgust that crosses Benji’s face. “Oh, don’t be such an altar boy, Benny.”
Altar boy? Benji thinks. Does it make him an altar boy to expect his father to be a man of character and integrity, to not cheat on their mother with someone Benji’s age, someone who also happened to be Celeste’s best friend? “Did you know about this?” Benji asks.
“Not really,” Thomas says. “But I saw Dad in the bar at the Four Seasons downtown a few weeks ago and he hid from me. I figured something was going on.” Thomas blinks. “Now I know what that something was.”
Benji shudders. The Four Seasons downtown? It was like that, like an affair from a novel or a movie? Thomas disappears down the hall with his plate before Benji can ask what Thomas had been doing at the Four Seasons downtown.
He doesn’t want to know.
Benji loiters at the mail table at the bottom of the stairs until he hears Celeste leaving her parents’ room, then he races to the second floor and catches her right before she enters her/his/their bedroom. His bedroom that she was using as a bridal suite that will become their bedroom in this house.
She turns. “I need to lie down,” she says.
“I understand you’re tired,” he says. He lets her enter the room, follows her, then closes the door behind them.
“Benji,” she says.
Her wedding dress is hanging on the closet door; it’s as unsettling to him as a headless ghost. “You’re not going to marry me,” he says. “Are you? Like at all, ever?”
“No,” she says. “I’m sorry, Benji, I’m not.”
Benji’s entire body goes numb. He nods but he feels like his head is being pulled by a string. Celeste! He wants to talk her out of it. He wants to explain that she shouldn’t judge him by his family’s actions. He’s not his father. He’s not his brother. He’s a good, true person and he will love her forever.
But he stops himself. Every single thing that Benji has comes from his parents—the money, the apartment, the education, the advantages. To denounce his family, to deny his unconditional love for them, would be disingenuous, and Celeste would recognize it as such. He has taken the privilege for granted for twenty-eight years, and now he has to accept the shame.
“What are you going to do?” he asks.
“I’m not sure,” she says. “Maybe take a trip. Maybe not.”
“I know it seems inconceivable right now,” Benji says, “but you will get past this. I don’t mean to say you’ll ever stop missing Merritt…”
“Benji,” Celeste says, and Benji clamps his mouth shut. He sounds like an ass. “My decision doesn’t have anything to do with Merritt.”
“It doesn’t?” he says.
She shakes her head. “It has to do with me.”
She doesn’t want to marry him.
He would like to say this comes as a complete shock, a wrecking ball out of nowhere—but it doesn’t.
“Your stutter is gone,” he says.
She smiles, sadly at first, but then with a touch of relief—or triumph. “Yes,” she says. “I know.”
As Benji is walking back to the first cottage—he needs to hide; he can’t bear to see either of his parents—he spies Shooter walking down the driveway.
Shooter. Benji has completely lost track of him, of time, of everything. Shooter looks like he’s just survived a shipwreck. He’s unshaven, his blue oxford is rumpled and untucked, he has his navy blazer crushed under one arm, and his mouth is hanging open as he stares at his phone.
“You look even worse than I feel,” Benji says, trying for the jocular tone they normally use with each other. “Where have you been?”
“Police station,” Shooter says. He follows Benji into the first cottage, then goes straight to the fridge and flips the top off a bottle of beer. “Want one?”
“Sure,” Benji says.
“Listen, there are some things you need to know,” Shooter says.
“Spare me, please,” Benji says. “I’ve heard too much already.”
Spare me, please. I’ve heard too much already.
Shooter lets that comment sink in. He was finally released from the police station; in the end, they had nothing to hold him on except impeding an active investigation. They issued him a ticket for three hundred dollars, which he paid in cash. Val Gluckstern had offered him a ride back to Summerland, but he said he wanted to walk. He needed to clear his head.
He hadn’t been sure how much he would need to explain. Maybe everything. Maybe nothing. He wanted very badly to talk to Celeste but he was afraid. He had spilled the beans to the police, which already felt like a betrayal. He was afraid Celeste would be angry, but he was more afraid she would deny that she had ever intended to run away with him.
As he was walking down the Winburys’ white-shell driveway between the rows of hydrangeas and under the boxwood arch, his phone pinged. It was a text from an unfamiliar 212 number. Shooter had clicked on the text more out of habit than anything else.
It was a picture of Shooter and Celeste standing outside Steamboat Pizza. They weren’t touching, though they were very close together—too close, probably. Shooter clicked on the photo and zoomed in. Celeste was looking in the vague direction of the camera and Shooter was looking at Celeste, his expression one of naked desire, longing, covetousness.
The photo is chilling, a threat. Did someone else know their plans? Who took it? Who sent it?
Shooter stopped dead in his tracks. He texted back: Who is this?
To which there was no response. Shooter ran through the possibilities. The 212 area code was Manhattan. And whoever this was either had been across the street or knew someone who was.
The implications were obvious, right? Someone was trying to scare him. If the photo was being sent to Shooter, it had probably also been sent to Benji. But Benji knew that Shooter and Celeste had gone to get pizza. It wasn’t as if someone had sent a picture of Shooter and Celeste a few minutes later, sitting on the bench by the Steamship terminal. That would have been harder to explain.
Okay, fine. Honestly, Shooter was too tired for games. He proceeded under the boxwood arch and bumped right into Benji.
Spare me, please. I’ve heard too much already.
“I ran away from the police this morning,” Shooter says. “They wanted to question me and I told them I had to use the john and then I slipped out the bathroom window.”
“Shut up,” Benji says.
Benji says, “I hope you told them you didn’t want to talk to the police because of what happened to your mother.”
Shooter takes a long pull off his beer. Benji is the only person who knows about Shooter’s mother, Cassandra. She became addicted to heroin after Shooter’s father died, but she had happened to OD during one of Shooter’s rare visits home. He was twenty-one years old, working as a bartender in Georgetown, and he gave Cassandra a fifty-dollar bill. She had spent it on smack. Shooter had woken up in the morning to find his mother dead. And, yes, he had blamed himself. He had basically begged the Dade County police to arrest him, but they had far too much experience with overdoses to blame anyone but the user herself.
“I hopped on the Hy-Line and they caught me, cuffed me, brought me to the police station. I hired a lawyer. She sat with me while I gave my account of last night.”